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From Sea to Sea: Robert McClure Connects the Northwest Passage

For the week of Monday, January 18, 2016

On January 20, 1850, HMS Investigator, under the command of Robert McClure, left England in search of Sir John Franklin’s 1845 Arctic expedition. His instructions from the British Admiralty were to enter the Arctic from the west, via the Pacific Ocean, because earlier voyages approaching from the east had always met with ice blockades.

This painting by one of the officers of Investigator, Lieutenant Gurney Creswell, shows the Prince of Wales Strait on September 6, 1850
© Library and Archives Canada / Acc. No. R9266-756

McClure was an experienced seaman and had served on two prior expeditions to the Arctic. Determined and ambitious, upon reaching Bering Strait he continued northeastward without waiting for the expedition’s flag ship, Enterprise. He discovered Prince of Wales Strait, between Victoria Island and Banks Island, but by September the ship was frozen into the ice. McClure was convinced that he had found the route to Viscount Melville Sound, mapped by Edward Parry in 1820, and the farthest point reached by Europeans sailing from the east. Undeterred by an immobile ship, he led repeated overland exploration trips by sledge.  On October 26, 1850, a small party climbed a hill on Banks Island and identified Melville Sound in the distance. McClure had found the final link of the Northwest Passage! In his journal, he noted that even if Franklin were not found, the expedition would still be a success.

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A Parks Canada underwater archaeologist swims by Investigator’s bow, 2010
© Brett Seymour / Parks Canada

In the spring of 1851, McClure attempted to sail west and north around Banks Island. Investigator was again trapped in ice, and eventually had to be abandoned. Rescue finally came in April 1853 when McClure's expedition was found by British naval ships. Upon returning to England in 1854, McClure and his crew shared a prize of ₤10,000 (about $1 million today) from the British Admiralty for their discovery. McClure was also court-marshalled for leaving Investigator, but then was acquitted, knighted, and promoted to captain.

In 2010, Parks Canada’s underwater archaeology team found HMS Investigator at the bottom of Mercy Bay, on the northeast coast of Banks Island, Northwest Territories.

Sir Robert John McClure is designated a person of national historic significance for his role in early Arctic exploration. McClure and his crew are credited as the first to traverse the Northwest Passage.

To learn how the crew of the Investigator were saved from the ice, see Rescuing the Rescuers in the This Week in History archives. To learn more about the Northwest Passage, read Dreams of Arctic Riches, In Search of the Northwest Passage, Lost in the Arctic and Happy Birthday, Henry!.

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada! Also visit the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada’s website.

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